Clement Clarke Moore was born July 15, 1779 in New York City. His father was an Episcopal Bishop who became president of Columbia College. His mother was the daughter of the wealthy Major Thomas Clarke, who owned the Manhattan estate “Chelsea.” The area of New York City where the estate was located is still known as Chelsea to this day.
Moore earned his B.A. from Columbia in 1798, and went on to earn his M.A. from Columbia as well.
Prior to the 1804 presidential election, Clement Moore published a pro-Federalist paper attacking the religious views of incumbent President Thomas Jefferson.
In 1820, Moore helped organize a new church for the Episcopal Diocese of New York. The new parish was named Trinity Church. Moore donated a tract of land from Chelsea, now his family estate, for the formation of General Theological Seminary of the Protestant Episcopal Church. Moore became the professor of Biblical learning, as well as a professor of Oriental and Greek literature at the Seminary. The seminary is still standing today on 9th Avenue between 20th and 21st streets, in an area known as Chelsea Square.
A Visit from St. Nicholas
Clement Moore wrote a poem for his own children, arguably the best-known verses ever written by an American, titled “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”
Moore had not wished at first to be connected with the verse, given his public reputation as an erudite professor.
However, the New York Sentinel, Troy, New York, published his poem anonymously on December 23, 1823.
A friend of Moore had sent the poem to the paper because Moore refused to publish it.
The poem became a huge hit and was reprinted frequently.
Then in 1837, the poem was first attributed to Moore in print. He finally acknowledged authorship when he included the poem in an 1844 anthology of his works at the insistence of his children.
It is worth noting that “A Visit from St. Nicholas” is largely responsible for our conception of Santa Claus, including his physical appearance, the night of his visit, his mode of transportation, the number and names of his reindeer, and the tradition that he brings toys to children.
In Moore’s poem, Santa Claus travels via a team of flying reindeer pulling Santa Claus and his sleigh to deliver Christmas gifts.
The reindeer known as Donner and Blitzen were originally called Donder and Blixem by Moore.
With the subsequent popularity of the Christmas song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” Rudolph has joined the list.
According to legend, Moore wrote his poem on a snowy winter’s day during a shopping trip on a sleigh. His inspiration for the character of Saint Nicholas was a local Dutch handyman as well as the historical Saint Nicholas.
At the time Moore wrote the poem, Christmas Day was beginning to overtake New Year’s Day as the preferred genteel family holiday of the season, but some Protestants — who saw Christmas as the result of “Catholic ignorance and deception” — still had reservations.
By having St. Nicholas, his “jolly old elf,” arrive the night before, Moore “deftly shifted the focus away from Christmas Day with its still-problematic religious associations.”
As a result, “New Yorkers embraced Moore’s child-centered version of Christmas as if they had been doing it all their lives.”
With this poem, Moore has originated many of the features that are still associated with Santa Claus today. Prior to Moore’s poem, American ideas about Saint Nicholas and other Christmastide visitors varied considerably.
Moore’s poem has also influenced ideas about Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus beyond the United States to the rest of the English-speaking world and beyond.
Today, we know his poem from its first line, “Twas the Night before Christmas.”
Modern printings frequently incorporate alterations that reflect changing linguistic and cultural sensibilities: For example, breast in “The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow” has frequently been changed to crest, the archaic ere in “But I heard him exclaim ere he drove out of sight” is now frequently replaced with as, and “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night” is frequently rendered as “Merry Christmas” along with “goodnight” as a single word.
Clement Moore died July 10, 1863 at his summer residence in Newport, Rhode Island.
His funeral was held in Trinity Church, Newport, where he had owned a pew.
Then his body was interred in the cemetery at St. Luke in the Fields.
On November 29, 1899, his body was re-interred in Trinity Church Cemetery in New York City.
Since 1911, the Church of the Intercession in Manhattan has held a service that includes the reading of the poem followed by a procession to the tomb of Clement Clarke Moore at Trinity Cemetery the Sunday before Christmas.
Now WE know em
A Visit from St. Nicholas
‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar plums danc’d in their heads,
And Mama in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap —
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters, and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new fallen snow,
Gave the luster of mid-day to objects below;
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and call’d them by name:
“Now! Dasher, now! Dancer, now! Prancer and Vixen,
“On! Comet, on! Cupid, on! Donder and Blitzen;
“To the top of the porch! To the top of the wall!
“Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!”
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of toys — and St. Nicholas too:
And then in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound:
He was dress’d all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnish’d with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys was flung on his back,
And he look’d like a peddler just opening his pack:
His eyes — how they twinkled! His dimples: how merry,
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry;
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face, and a little round belly
That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly:
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laugh’d when I saw him in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And fill’d all the stockings; then turn’d with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.
He sprung to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew, like the down of a thistle:
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight —
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.
—Clement Clarke Moore